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Sheridan’s wonderfully funny farce, The Critic is currently being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and I thought I ought to bring it to your attention not only because it is a superb 18th century play that is rarely performed these days, but also because it would appear that Jane Austen admired it too.
This was Sheridan’s opportunity to expose his own experiences in the theatre: of his exasperation with pompous and fretful actors, playwrights who could not abhor criticism, hapless directors, scene designers and, of course, critics, gleefully modelling some of the play’s characters on people with whom he had worked. His play, a satire on the fashions of the theatre of the day, concerns the doings of The Critic, Mr Dangle, and, during the last act, how he and another critic, Mr Sneer and the anxious playwright, Sir Fretful Plagiary, react to the rehearsal of Mr Puff’s “historical tragedy”, The Spanish Armada.
This play within the play needless to say is ridiculous, a romance that is historically inaccurate and satirizes the theatrical conventions of the day : ranting, addressing soliloquies only to the pit, all concluding with crazed processions that were the stock in trade of many of the productions in the 18th century repertoire:
“Flourish of drums-trumpets-cannon etc etc Scene changes to the sea- the fleets engage- the musik plays ”Britons strike home”-Spanish fleet destroyed by fire ships etc-English fleet advances-musick plays Rule Britannia-The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries and their emblems etc begins with Handel’s water musick ends with a chorus to the march in Judas Maccabeaus-During this scene Puff directs and applauds everything-then
PUFF: Well, pretty well-but not quite perfect-so ladies and gentlemen if you please we’ll rehearsh this piece again tomorrow.
Exactly the type of production Edmund Bertram sneers at in Chapter 13 of Mansfield Park
“Nay,” said Edmund, who began to listen with alarm. “Let us do nothing by halves. If we are to act, let it be in a theatre completely fitted up with pit, boxes, and gallery, and let us have a play entire from beginning to end; so as it be a German play, no matter what, with a good tricking, shifting afterpiece, and a figure–dance, and a hornpipe, and a song between the acts. If we do not outdo Ecclesford, we do nothing.”
By the time of The Critic’s premiere, Richard Brinsley Sheridan had already enjoyed great success as a playwright: his first comedy, The Rivals, had opened at Drury Lane four years earlier and was followed by The School for Scandal (1777), which was widely regarded as his masterpiece. Sheridan had by this time also purchased an interest in Drury Lane and eventually became its manager.
Jane Austen must certainly have read the play by the 1790s when she was writing her History of England, for she ironically uses The Critic– or really the play within the play, Mr Puff’s The Spanish Armarda- as a primary source for her statement about Sir Walter Raleigh in the section concerning James I:
Sir Walter Raleigh flourished in this & the preceding reign & is by many people held in great veneration & respect-But as he was an enemy of the noble Essex, I have nothing to say in praise of him& must refer all those who wish to be acquainted with the particulars of his Life to Mr Sheridan’s play of the Critic, where they will find many interesting Anecdotes as well of him as of his freind(sic) Sir Christopher Hatton.
In Love and Freindship (sic) from Volume the Second of the juvenilia, there is another reference.
“We fainted Alternatively on a Sofa”
This is a clear allusion to the stage direction in Act III Scene 1 of The Critic, when during rehearsal of The Spanish Armarda The Justice’s Lady is melodramatically reunited with her son :
Mother: O ecstasy of Bliss!
Son: O most unlook’d for happiness
Mother : O wonderful event!
[They faint alternatively in each others arms]
Sheridan in his turn, was an admirer of Jane Austen’s works:
Richard Brinsley Sheridan speaking to a Miss Shirreff at a dinner party ”at Mr Whitbread’s when Pride and p came out…asked her if she had seen it, and advised her to buy it immediately for it was one of the cleverest things he ever read
( see David Gilson: A Bibliography of Jane Austen, page 26)
The current production has had rave reviews. Libby Purvis writing in The Times said
The rendering of the rehearsal of Mr Puff’s heroic patriotic Armarda play is blissful.
As you can see from the wonderful production photographs in this post taken by Manuel Harlan it is a beautifully correct staging of this period piece. It is being performed as a double bill in conjunction with the same cast taking part in a performance of The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard-which was of course originally entitled …The Critics ;-)
And for fans of the BBC’s 1995 production of Persuasion, there is an additional reason to go and see it. Captain Benwick, played by Richard McCabe is in this production: see him first on the left in the picture below,as the hapless Mr Puff.
So, do, if you can go to Chichester Festival Theatre before the 28th August when this production closes to see it and discover exactly the sort of clever and hilariously funny wordplay that so attracted Jane Austen. You will not be disappointed.
I should like to give my profuse thanks both the staff at the Chichester Festival Theatre, with especial praise to Ellen Holbrook, and to their amazing photographer, Manuel Harlan, for their kindness in granting me permission to use their wonderful images of the production in this post.